Seeing Yellow Spots

Written by Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell

Have you ever seen those yellow decals on the ATONs (Aids To Navigation)? If your answer starts with,”what’s an ATON?” then let’s get you to a basic boating course. But if you’re still with us then please read on….

When you cruise the ICW or Intracoastal Waterway, the ATONs or markers are denoted with yellow decals- usually the red markers have a triangle shaped yellow decal and the green markers have a square yellow decal in the uppermost portion of the marker board. ICW buoys also sport this small but important symbol. This is the easiest way to tell the difference between a regular channel marker/ATON and an ICW channel marker/ATON. Look for and follow the YELLOW ICW decals when the channel changes directions or if you have an intersecting channel. Another ICW clue is to follow the numerical sequence. If you are following the 22, 23, 24, 25 order and you see a 1, 2, 3 sequence cutting in then you may either have an intersecting channel or maybe it’s the start of an entrance channel to a marina. Be aware of your course! You don’t want to have to make a U turn, showing everyone else you went the wrong direction!

Red is on your Right when Returning from sea. Sound familiar? Another way to remember it is when cruising from a bigger body of water (ocean or a lake) to a smaller body of water (the inlet channel or harbor entrance) the red marker or buoy stays on your right. Similar to the Red Right Return motto, there is an easy ICW motto to help guide you: Red Right Returning to Texas. Remember this phrase and you will always know where the Red and Green should be, regardless of your compass course, north , south , east or west.

Let’s put this memory aid to the test. Assume you are cruising from Charleston to New Orleans in the ICW. Apply the rule, “red right return to Texas” and you will see how it works. As you cruise south towards Miami the red marker with yellow triangle decal will be on your right (starboard). As you near Miami and turn westerly towards the Florida Keys the reds will remain on your right. Now steer a northerly course up Florida west coast towards Fort Myers, Sarasota, Tampa Bay and the reds are still on your right. As you cross the open waters of the Big Bend and cruise westerly towards Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans, you guessed it….the reds are on your right.

Another way to remember where the reds should be is to keep in mind red markers are towards the heartland. Regardless of your own heading the ICW red will be toward the mainland or heartland and the ICW green markers are always toward the sea. Red is the color of a heart, green is the color of the sea…get it?

Now that you understand that, how ’bout we throw in a monkey wrench? You may know some major highway routes that share the same road: Interstate 95 and US 17 for instance. This is because both routes share the same roadway for a while then separate and veer in different directions.

Same for some waterways. Near the Georgia Florida State Line the St Mary’s River inlet comes in from sea. Red Right Returning from Sea applies here as always. Assume this is basically an East West Channel. You may want to get your chart out right now and follow along to better understand if you are a visual learner. Then the North South ICW intersects and runs in the river pattern for a few miles. Since the ICW is red to the Heartland (YELLOW Triangle Decal on a red ATON) and the river channel is Red Right returning there is a lot of confusion here. The red river buoys are on your right coming in from sea, heading northward in this channel and the ICW red is on your left as you travel north to meet the inlet channel. So how do you know where you should be? It is simple!  The YELLOW decals will show you the way.

In this case the red buoy in the river will have a yellow square meaning it is a Red Right Returning river buoy and the sticker shape means it should be considered and treated like a green buoy for the ICW. The opposite is true for the other side of the river,  the green buoy will have a yellow triangle decal. Confused a bit? Just reread the first two sentences of this paragraph. Draw it out. Look at the chart until you have that ah ha! moment. It is clearly marked on the chart but in good weather many people do not notice or understand the system and then when they get to the point where the inlet channel stops they must revert back to the traditional ATON System and uh-oh! they’ve  run aground.

Prepare for your trip the evening before and pay attention to these tricky spots…these tricky yellow spots. Once you cruised an area like this you can be an expert and coach other first timers.

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning. If you have additional questions for Captain Chris or Captain Alyse, please email them at